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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Barack Obama has set another fundraising record. His campaign raised 66 million dollars in August. That is 11 million dollars more than the previous record Obama set in June, and it's nine million more than Republican John McCain raised last month. Then there are the outside groups. As NPR's Peter Overby reports, they are raising their own money and using it to run hard-hitting ads.

PETER OVERBY: First, a bit more about the candidates' finances. They're better than Wall Street's. Obama started September with 77 million dollars on hand, his campaign says. He claims two and a half million donors. McCain is taking only public funds for the fall campaign, 84 million dollars and change. He has to make it last through Election Day. Both candidates are also raising millions for their national party committees where Republicans have a strong advantage. But a big unknown here is the impact of independent groups, freelancers who raise their own money, often unregulated, and who don't coordinate with the candidate they support.

Both Obama and McCain came out against these independent message groups last spring. But the outsiders have been tiptoeing into the arena. And in the past several weeks, their pace has quickened. Yesterday, for instance, a group called Brave New PAC, put up an ad on MSNBC and CNN. It features Phillip Butler, a contemporary of McCain's both at the Naval Academy and in the Vietnam POW camps. The ad aims at the core of McCain's image, his reputation as a POW and Vietnam War hero.

(Soundbite of Brave New PAC ad)

Mr. PHILLIP BUTLER (Military Contemporary of John McCain): He would blow up and go off like a Roman candle. John McCain is not somebody that I would like to see with his finger near the red button.

OVERBY: This afternoon, McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds called the ad vile and said it was put out apparently at the behest of the Obama campaign. Hollywood director Robert Greenwald founded Brave New PAC, plus Brave New Films, and Brave New Foundation. They occupy different legal slots in a concerted effort to promote progressive issues, mainly through online videos. Greenwald says online is the cost-effective future of political communication.

Mr. ROBERT GREENWALD (Founder & Director, Brave New PAC): Commercials on television are something you avoid. Videos that friends pass to you are something you're much more receptive to.

OVERBY: Earlier, Greenwald's groups produced a video about McCain's multiple homes. That led to press coverage, and when McCain fumbled a reporter's question, to a national story. There have been others: the POW video and ad, and this week a video calling on McCain to release his medical records. Prominent on the other side is American Issues Project. Late last month, an ad from AIP leveled charges about Obama's ties to Bill Ayers, an educator who was once a leader of the radical Weather Underground.

(Soundbite of AIP ad)

Unidentified Announcer: Some members of the group Ayers founded even went on to kill police. But Barack Obama is friends with Ayers, defending him as, quote, "respectable and mainstream."

OVERBY: The Obama campaign launched a rebuttal ad and asked the IRS and Justice Department to investigate AIP. The ad was financed by a single Texas businessman, Harold Simmons, who gave AIP more than two million dollars for it. Now, Ed Martin, president of the board of AIP, says they're organizing for the next attack.

Mr. ED MARTIN (Board President, AIP): Senator Obama's campaign is going to have a lot more money. And some of the interest groups that have more liberal ideas and things are going to have a ton of money. But we're kind of figuring things out right now and are not yet ready to say what our next steps will be.

OVERBY: John Geer of Vanderbilt University studies negative campaigning. He says that the POW ad and whatever American Issues Project comes up with all serve to keep the campaign in the news.

Dr. JOHN GEER (Professor of Political Science, Vanderbilt University): My biggest worry about these ads is that they suddenly catch the attention of mainstream news outlets, and then they get aired to the entire public again and again and again.

OVERBY: He says independent groups have discovered they get a lot more free media play from going negative than from anything they say that's positive. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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